It’s amazing what can happen when a skilled artist picks up a chisel or sits down with lump of clay in order to create a silent partner. In my pervious article, I discussed the different types of ventriloquist figures most commonly used today, mainly outlining the differences between soft (material and foam) puppets and traditional/hard (wood or molded) figures.
Personally, I have been infatuated with puppets of all kinds for as long as I can remember, but the day I saw my first ventriloquist figure it changed my life forever. I was in third grade, and we had a special performance at school. The performer was a magician and ventriloquist. During the show, he brought his partner, a traditional, hard ventriloquist figure, out on the stage. Suddenly, it was alive. I was mesmerized. The puppet came to life unlike anything I had seen before. And I was hooked. From that day forward, I was on a quest to find, own and learn to manipulate a puppet the way I saw it done on stage that day.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally got to see and use a professional ventriloquist figure, and that day was also transformational. Today, I am surrounded by figures of all shapes and sizes. My collection has over 30 figures in it, and each one is a unique piece of art. My knowledge of the rich history of this art form only furthers my appreciation for it, as I’m sure it will yours.
The first recorded appearance of a ventriloquist figure was reported in 1757 when Austrian performer Baron Von Mengen modified a nutcracker to create a makeshift puppet to use in a performance. Mengen used the “poupee” along with manipulation to give the inanimate object life.
However, it’s English ventriloquist Fred Russell that’s considered the father of modern ventriloquism. In the late 1800s, he began performing with a single wise-crackin’, cheeky-boy dummy named “Coster Joe” sitting on his knee.
Since that time, figures have evolved quite a bit. These original figures were crude dolls and dummies with grotesque features or simple flat faces painted on wooden boards with hinged mouths manipulated by a single peg.
Today, there are an endless number of options. There are figures that look like real people, others that look like creatures and caricatures, and some crafted to resemble animals, aliens and imaginary characters. Essentially, if you can dream it, they can make it.
The wooden vent figure was brought to prominence by The Great Lester when he reached the pinnacle of Vaudeville success with his self-carved figure, Frank Byron Jr. But when it comes to the golden age of ventriloquism, it was Frank Marshall who put figure making on the map.
Frank Marshall began working at the Mack & Son Woodworking Shop at the age of 13, after The Great Lester brought him to the Mack’s shop to rehab after suffering from Polio. Although Marshall passed away in 1969, he remains the most renowned figure maker in history even to this day. He made famous figures for many legendary ventriloquists, including Jerry Mahoney for Paul Winchell and Danny O’Day for Jimmy Nelson.
Today, there are many talented figure makers at the top of their game creating amazing figures for ventriloquists.
Conrad Hartz is regarded by many as the modern day Frank Marshall. He creates figures in the Marshall-style and even uses some of Marshall’s personal woodcarving tools to do it.
Tim Selberg has for many years held the top slot in the modern figure-making world with his hyper-realistic, doll-like works of art that are sculpted and meticulously painted by Tim’s own hand. His figures are available with lots of mechanical animations and are a top choice for many working professionals.
There are many other figure makers who have produced wonderful figures in recent years like Alan Semok, Chuck Jackson, Bill Nelson, Mike Brose, Robert McRay, Albert Alfaro, Brant Gilmer, Dan Lavendar, Kem Poyner, Geoff Felix and Greg Claassen. As well as relative new comers like Mike Palma, Jimmy Eisenberg, Joe LaPenna, Corey Coleman, Jim Manalli, Tyler Ellis and Austin Philips who makes figures in the tradition of Europe’s Marshall, Len Insull.
Figure Making Magic
What do you get when a sign painter turned commercial artist turned comic book inker turned magic prop builder decides to get into figure building?
A new beginning.
Enter Chance Wolf. A magic enthusiast who not only collects but also creates magic props. Wolf is a life-long lover of the magical arts and also a child ventriloquist who was bit by the magic bug at age of 12 when he watched an old man make a dollar bill disappear in his bare hands. That same year Chance got his first vent figure (a Jerry Mahoney).
After spending over a decade illustrating comic books for Image Comics like Shadowhawk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spawn the Undead and Spawn just to name a few and eventually being the art assistant to the legendary comic book icon Todd McFarlane, Chance began suffering symptoms of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. The condition made it too painful for him to work any longer in his dream career, so he was forced to make the difficult decision to leave the comic book world and forge a new path.
As a part-time working magician, Wolf had built many custom magic tricks for both his own show as well as for other magicians. That’s when it hit him—maybe he could build magic props for other working magicians.
After some research, Chance discovered that many of the props in the children’s magic market were poorly designed and visually outdated by about 50 years. So he embarked on building a business focused on reinventing children’s magic.
In early 2003, with the help of his girlfriend and future wife, Shelley, Wolf’s Magic was born. The early days of the company were brutal. The learning curve and 16 hour days never seemed to end. But Chance’s passion for the art and drive to create something truly special pushed them through the grueling months. Within 12 months, they had revolutionized the way children’s magic looked and they way it was performed. He created Willy Wonka-style props with elaborate fun plots that utilized new manufacturing materials resulting in longer lasting, high-quality apparatus for both performers and collectors. The magic community had never seen anything like it.
Chance and I became friends in 2012 when I approached him about building a kid’s magic prop I had created. Chance worked with me to bring the effect to life and we marketed and sold it to the magic community at large. Since then, I have consulted with Chance on several magic props and last year we released the sell-out kids effect, The Skunky Munky.
Chance and I speak often and over the years I have talked with him about my passion for ventriloquism, my work as a ventriloquist and my collection of figures. I feel like these conversations may have had a small part in motivating Chance to rekindle his love of vent figures and start his figure making journey.
Just as he did with children’s magic, Chance is on a quest to reinvent modern figure making. His figure making business model has been designed to avoid the common pitfalls in manufacturing and service while still providing collector quality figures, with professional reliability and excellent customer service and communication.
He’s applying the streamlined production process he’s honed for 13 years making magic to building his figure. This allows Wolf Vents to build multiple figures at once but still give them all a unique and custom touch.
Chance’s figures are engineered with innovative mechanical designs, utilizing synthetic materials for fabrication of components and intelligent, ergonomic lever positioning. Chance builds with the user in mind and applies an Apple sensibility to the way his creations’ mechanics look and function. Intuitive and user-friendly vent figures? Yes!
Even the bodies are a modern version of the classic all wood bodies of yesteryear with a ground-breaking new design that keeps them lightweight yet strong enough to stand on. Most figure makers create a new character head design then simply throw it on a stock body. That’s doesn’t work for Chance. His perspective is that the body design is just as important as the head design. They work in tandem to complete a full vision of a character. Given people have an infinite number of physical characteristics that make them an individual, from weight, height, posture, etc., why not give that same complete uniqueness to a vent figure? Chance has!
But what really makes Chance’s figures stand out is his extensive background in illustration. He is able to bring highly original characters to life in his unique comic style that is topped off with a first class paint job. He hand-paints everything with multi-layered airbrush effects.
His stock figures come with many features most others would typically charge hundreds extra for. Chance’s feeling is that these “extras” are actually necessary for the best user experience so they come stock on all his figures.
Another key concept in Chance’s work is that each figure will have animations that match the character not just a bunch of random animations chosen by the ventriloquist and crammed onto the stick. Chance believes that the character and the animations work in harmony to help the vent create a believable and authentic personality and performance. So he’s restricting the animations that come on each of his figures to only those that add to the character even if it means losing money on the sale of extra animations.
This with this thinking in mind, Chance and I have been working to innovate novel animations that bring his characters to life in new ways. By applying the principles of magic and prop building to figure making we’re coming up with some very exciting and revolutionary stuff.
Sometimes in life there is a confluence of unique events that creates a rare phenomenon. Something that redefines they way things are looked at, thought about and done. That unlikely event is currently occurring in ventriloquist figure making right now. Leading the charge is Chance Wolf.